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Boldness and authority in preaching

Boldness and authority in preaching

A Q&A about ministry

Dear friends

One of the most enjoyable aspects of doing Two Ways News is interacting regularly with so many of you—through emails and casual conversations as we bump into each other. 

This week, I thought it was time to pause and deal with a couple of the interesting questions that have come in recently, both of them about gospel ministry in its different aspects: 

  • One is about what makes gospel ministry grow, and whether we can learn from the success of other churches or ministries, or whether everything is too contextual; 

  • The other is in response to our recent discussion about pastors and pastoring, and asks (quite reasonably) whether we have anything positive to say about the ‘office’ or ‘position’ of elder or pastor? 

I hope you find the answers stimulating. (As usual, the text below is an edited summary of the longer ramblier audio conversation.)

Your brother 


Q&A - About Ministry: Boldness & Authority

TP: The first question is from Joel, who's a young man in ministry. He's trying to think through different aspects of ministry. He says this:

As far as I'm aware, it seems as though Phillip had a lot of gospel growth, amazingly, with Campus Bible Study at UNSW, compared to many of the other AFES groups at the time, which didn't grow as much. This seems to be because he prioritized preaching the gospel clearly on campus. But I'm sure that wasn't the only factor involved. What were the factors involved? And which of them are biblically mandated ones (i.e. for everyone to do everywhere) and what were the Australian/Sydney specific ones that were contextual?

So I guess, Phillip, this is a question that asks you to reflect on your own history.

PJ: It's difficult in that regard, because no one will know everything that was happening. And it's also difficult to know your own history; history is best written a generation afterwards, when the dust has settled a little bit more. And history written by the people involved in it always has the whole problem of bias and perspective.

TP: It’s tempting to justify your own actions.

PJ: Yes, and also, sometimes the person-–in this case myself—was too busy doing it to actually have stood back and reflected exactly what was happening and what we were doing. It's not that we were acting thoughtlessly, but we didn't have the time for reflection that a historian needs to balance all the factors. So that's the first point. 

The second point on what to say about it is some of the most dangerous people to ever listen to on this topic are the people who have had apparent numerical growth—the person who plants the church and sees it grow and becomes a mega church generally gets confused as to why it has happened, but he is widely listened to because it happened. And I am very skeptical of other people who recount how they were able to achieve so much under God, because the reasons they give are generally their prejudice, their pious wish, their hope, their theory; it's not actually historical or sociological or necessarily the real reason. So I'm wary of others doing it, and I'm wary about myself doing it. 

Next is to say I'm a sufficient realist to know that there were certain factors at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in the second half of the 20th century, which gave certain advantages to how things grew. Factors like every year, 50 or so Christians would come down from the country to study at UNSW. And if you just stood at the door and captured them, your church grew by 50 people every year. So because of that, our church grew very rapidly compared to the local suburban church. That is a decided advantage that had little to do with the gospel that I was preaching, or the way I was preaching. But it's not a great model from which you can draw conclusions. However, Joel asked the question in comparison to other AFES groups at the time. Again, there is a contextual advantage during that period of time. The Anglican Church in Sydney did not suffer to the same extent the falling away of nominal Christianity that the rest of Australia did suffer. Why was that? Well, because Sydney Anglicanism took its stand for biblical faithfulness. It’s a long historical story, but we were convinced of the importance of being evangelicals first and Anglicans second, and that made a massive difference. 

TP: And because evangelical Anglicanism was strong within Sydney, it meant that evangelicalism, relatively speaking, was stronger in Sydney than in many other capitals. And that meant that there were more keen Christian students being sent to university from Sydney churches as well.

PJ: Yes, exactly, remembering Anglicanism is the largest Protestant denomination in Australia. (I'm not for a moment thinking that it is the best or the only or anything like that, just that it was and is the largest.) So if you've got the largest Protestant denomination being evangelical in your city, then you'll have more evangelical students arriving on campus. Whereas in Melbourne, for example, not even the Baptists were thoroughly evangelical as they were going along with liberal tradition; and the Anglicans were moving away from evangelicalism and the Uniting Church was coming together and the Presbyterians were having to reform themselves—it was very hard to have the same size of student group in Melbourne. In about 1990, the average size of a Sydney Anglican parish was 180 members who came on Sundays, while the average size of a Melbourne Anglican Church was around 50. We were nearly all evangelicals, whereas in Melbourne, it was a minority of parishes that were evangelicals. So, yes, it was easier to do student work in Sydney than it was to do student work in other cities in Australia. 

And so I can give my theories as to how I did it, but you’ve got to be realistic about the situation. However, even within Sydney, UNSW went ahead faster than the other campuses and there are elements that you may need to look into to try and work out. One of the key things was our movement away from the student-led model that we inherited from Cambridge at the beginning of the 20th century, which meant that every week Campus Bible Study at UNSW had the same preacher speaking through the Scriptures, compared to the public lecture system of the Evangelical Union that I went to at Sydney University when I was an undergraduate, where every week it was a different speaker. And they weren't always expounding the Bible; they were often talking on topics. And so the consistency of the program was an important element as to why Campus Bible Study grew and thrived on UNSW campus at the same time that the other AFES groups and the Christian Union on the same campus declined. It was a fairly clear comparison of two products—going along each week to a lecture that you didn't know who it was going to be and you didn't know what they were going to be talking about, compared to going along to hearing the next chapter of the Bible expounded to you. It was a better product.

TP: And it also flowed over into a consistency of approach and leadership and general quality in the ministry, because you had theologically trained, experienced ministry people working with students and driving the ministry, as opposed to the student leadership which had to be refreshed every year or two and consists of 21-year-olds who really don't know very much. And so the sense of the nature of the ministry being a more sustainable, good quality, ongoing ministry is obviously going to be different. And one of the issues that AFES still struggles with around Australia is how to navigate student leadership and student involvement and the involvement of long term staff who really anchor and drive the ministry. And that was one of the factors that we have done at CBS.

PJ: Yes, I think that's right. Now, the next bit that I'm going to say, which may be just nothing more than my prejudice, is that we did take a bolder and more … aggressive approach. There must be a nicer word than ‘aggressive’ to describe our approach to evangelism and to the rejection of the cultural norms of the late 20th century student world. We did not accept the push away from propositional revelation and the Scriptural authority on issues such as the social gospel or feminism or the sexual revolution. But rather, we did boldly proclaim what the Scriptures were saying and engaged with the university at the level of persecution rather than accommodation. And so, yes, we grew more than the other ones. But we were hounded and attacked by the university authorities more than the other ones as well. And I think that's part of the willingness to stand up and be counted and to fight for what we're doing. Now, again, that was easier with a full-time staff member on campus, rather than a traveling secretary advising a student committee on how best to negotiate the situation of their campus. I was regularly in trouble on the campus with the other chaplains and the university authorities and the student councils.

TP: It's interesting though—the boldness was not a contextual tactic. It's not as if you decided, “Look, in order to make progress here, we'll take the university authorities on. That’s what will work—to be more polemical.” But rather it was a convictional approach to ministry everywhere, that the gospel you preach is always both yes and no: it's always a wonderful yes from God and a promise of salvation, but it always critiques the world. And it always calls us to not be friends with the world. And that means that when we do preach the gospel that way, we end up being hated just as Jesus was hated.

PJ: Yes, that's right. And it would have been the same on any campus I went to or any parish or any church. But it's funny. It's like this word ‘inclusive’— such a funny progressivist ideal. There's nothing more inclusive than the gospel of the Lord Jesus which will include anybody; no matter how wicked, evil, immoral or degenerate, they are under the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Adolf Hitler could be saved. However, we're also exclusive. The idea that you could be put in one camp or the other, it's exclusive and it calls upon people to repent or they will face the judgment of exclusion from the presence of God for eternity. 

At the same time as being the most inclusive, we're also the most exclusive, and that means that we can be persecuted for both. We're excluding people in an age in which everybody has to be included. But then we're also attacked because we speak to everyone—to people of other cultures and other religions, inviting them to join us. And so we're attacked for being inclusive, and we're attacked for being exclusive. If you preach the gospel, you will get attacked. That's the bottom line.

TP: So to come back to your question, Joel, the answer is yes, it is gospel preaching—the kind of gospel preaching that's clear enough and bold enough to get you attacked—that is needed for people to understand what you're saying negatively as well as positively. But yes, as Philip has pointed out, there were lots of other contextual factors involved and how they all worked together. And what were the most important ones, perhaps history will eventually tell us that. 

We might move on to the next question. It comes in response to our discussion about pastors and pastoring and the function of pastoring. We keep getting more questions about that. This one is from Paul. He says:

One of my overwhelming feelings by the end of your “Pastoring the Flock” interview was your negativity towards any sense of office. In fact, Tony said right at the end, ‘By saying how functionally the New Testament talks about congregational leadership, it helps us to stop driving a wedge between the pastor or the bishop whose office places him on a kind of pedestal and the rest of the congregation who were just like the recipients of His ministry.’ It made me go back and chase how you use the word office throughout the article and every single use is negative. It's not about the office; it's about the function. My problem is that this creates a false dichotomy. … The person who has a task holds a position of significance or authority within the life of the congregation, whether you want to give that position the title of an office or not. And there are quite a few young men over the ages who have already hoodwinked themselves into misunderstanding the significance of their task or position in relation to other people. I think many who hold the task, but who are theologically committed to the fact that they have no real office, will be blind to the influence that they wield. I know so many young men who think ‘I'm just like you in lots of good ways’ and who at the same time are unaware of the effect their position has on their relationships.

It’s a very good question. Phillip, we didn't talk all that much about office except to fairly negatively refer to it as a rank or position or title. Let's dig into Paul's issue, though. To what extent does the task or function of becoming a preacher and a teacher in a congregation—that you are appointed or called to as an overseer or elder or minister—create a position or sense of authority? How do we understand this idea of office?

PJ: I think Paul's exactly right. The good thing about having questions is corrections, nuancing, pushing further the discussion. I’m so very glad to receive this.

So to answer Paul’s question, you can't regularly teach other people without becoming their leader. Whatever you call it, the task itself carries authority with it. And so, yes, the person who regularly preaches will have great authority within the church. Our church is led by the word of God, and the word of God is taught to us by our teachers. It’s not because they’ve been given a title but because they teach. But if they are teaching, yes, they will have greater authority within the church. Now, the authority is even greater when they're teaching God's word, because God's word is the ultimate authority. And it's hard to hear God's word being taught by somebody without something of the authority of the Bible kind of slipping down into the teacher. 

It's like those Study Bibles that have notes down the bottom. They are dreadful because the authority of the texts kind of slides down to the footnotes. And when you're in a discussion group with people, you'll find they'll quote the footnote as if that's part of the text. It's a dangerous association. So I think it's absolutely right. And we need to recognize that authority comes from the activity. The activity alone without authority, as Paul criticizes, that's nonsense. That's a false dichotomy. But the activity is what gives the authority, not the institutional appointment.

TP: Now, as you are appointed within a congregation to be the person who has oversight, who has that particular responsibility, and who exercises that responsibility mainly through teaching, instruction, correction, rebuking, warning away the wolves, feeding the lambs, and so on—that does create a ‘position’. It creates an ongoing relationship between that person and the congregation, and we call that  that we call that relationship an ‘office’ or their position. And you can't have that ongoing authority and responsibility without that kind of position or role or office naturally being entailed within it. 

I guess what we were pushing back against is the idea of ‘position’ or appointment to a particular title/rank as the important thing, rather than the task or function—that's the important thing. The authorities and responsibilities that are attached really come out of the responsibility to do that task.

PJ: I'm not sure I agree with you. I think you can have all that authority without any position or role or appointment. That is, the person who regularly teaches, even informally, will become the leader of the group.

TP: Yes, that's true. It goes with the task. But as congregations and bodies of people organize themselves over time, they come up with processes, structures, and ordered ways of doing things, such that when they come to appoint a new teacher, preacher, overseer to this congregation, there are forms of action and procedure they go through. There are interviews, applications, procedures of ordination, and so on. You are appointed to a particular place, you are given that title, you have that role. There are formal structures that surround it. Now I quite agree with you that you can have the authority and actually exercise it without belonging to any of those structures. But the best way to understand those structures is as an expression of an entailment of the authority and responsibility of the task. I think that's what we're saying. Does that make sense to you?

PJ: Well, that's what you're saying. I just think it is more charismatic than structured. But I'm happy with your assessment that structure does come out as a result. My problem is that the structure can hide the lack of authority in some people. And vice versa: you might think that the congregation must listen to me because I'm ordained, as if it's my right to minister this way because I'm the appointed person. That’s a failure. 

So it would be lovely if the formal structures truly reflected the task, but they don't always and they can't—or they can't perfectly. 

TP: Fair enough. But the way I’d put it is that (whatever their failures) structures and ‘offices’  are a way of expressing and organizing teaching authority and responsibility over time, with a group of people. 

PJ: I’m more worried on Paul's point, that is: there are people who, by teaching the word of God, have acquired great authority within the group, whether it's formally recognized or not. They've gained this authority within the group, and they can be unaware of that authority. And being unaware of that authority in one sense is good, because you're humble, and you don't think of yourself more highly than you ought. But it’s also very dangerous. Because you then seek to influence people outside the realms of your appropriate authority. Your political views become the norm of the group, your social views become the norm of the group, because your Bible teaching is so widely accepted. And it also opens up the real possibility of manipulation and tyranny, because you become the one person who rules the group. And so rather than restricting your authority to the word of God, you use the authority to become the ruler, going beyond the word of God and using it inappropriately in some relationships. And so to think of yourself with sober judgment is very important. And it's tricky. It's difficult. Because as a humble Christian person, you don't think you are more important than anybody else. But as a congregation member, listening with appreciation to the teaching of a person, they will think you as more important, because you become very important in their lives.

TP: Which is why as a pastor and an overseer, it's so important to keep undercutting yourself. It's important to downplay titles and avoid special seats. It's so important to dress the same as everybody else, to sit in the congregation with everybody else. And in terms of the outward forms and structures insofar as you can manage them, keep minimizing that sense of ‘my kingly rule within this group of people’, even as you recognize that you do have really important responsibilities, and that you will have authority within this group of people. 

Can I ask you a tricky follow-up question? If your authority as a teacher, preacher, overseer is really the authority to teach the Word of God in this congregation, how does that authority extend to the organization of and strategy of the group? Is a pastor’s teaching authority expressed in casting an organizational vision of how to live as God's people through the practical decisions we make as a congregation? How does his teaching authority relate to those practical decisions? 

PJ: Yes, it's a question that puts his finger on one of the complexities of Protestantism. So the role of a teacher/pastor in the Presbyterian tradition is different to the Anglican tradition, and different again to the Baptist tradition. Within the Baptist tradition, the pastor is an employee of the elders. Within the Presbyterian Church, he is one of the elders; in other words, he's the teaching elder. Within the Anglican tradition, he is the director of the church and directs the decisions of the church. And the eldership of the parish council shares in the ministry with him by looking after the finances and the building, rather than the direction the ministry goes. And the fact that you've got three different traditions within Protestants on this very issue shows that it is one of those unresolved parts of our thinking and our way of operating.

TP: My observation is that when each of those different approaches is functioning well, they start to resemble each other. And so when I think of many Baptist churches, I know they’re very congregationalist in their polity. And so you think the pastor would be at the mercy of the congregation and the elders, but when he teaches the Bible with authority and truth and power over time, that authority comes to mean something. The congregation are drawn together into a common vision built around the gospel, and it ends up being a wonderfully cooperative thing where the pastor and the elders are exercising leadership of the congregation, and yet the congregation is fully involved in owning it around a common gospel vision that emerges from the preaching.  I haven't had much experience with Presbyterianism, but from what my friends tell me when it's working well, that's how it works there as well. And that's how it works well in an Anglican system as well. If the rector is an autocrat, who just seeks to throw his weight around because he technically can, it all falls apart very quickly, doesn’t it?

PJ: Yes, that's quite right. The theory, I guess, is that if you teach the word of God properly and thoroughly, then the building committee, the strategy committee, the finance committee, and so on, will make godly decisions that will coalesce with each other around a shared gospel vision. However, humans are weak and fallible and sinful. 

TP: It doesn't quite work always in every circumstance, does it?

PJ:No, it doesn’t. But when we're working together, it's a great thing. 

TP: Well, Paul, I hope in this follow-up conversation we've done something to address the gap that you noticed in our first conversation. Thanks for writing to point it out!


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Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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